Yudai Fujioka hit a home run in his home ballpark, but there was no one around to cheer.
After an silent trip around the bases, Fujioka walked along the front of the Chiba Lotte Marines dugout with his hand up ready to high-five everyone on the bench. While some of his teammates did the same, they celebrated without actually slapping hands.
A social distance high-five.
Japanese baseball may finally be starting after a three-month delay, but the effects of COVID-19 will linger throughout the season. Stadiums will be devoid of fans initially and socially distant celebrations will be the norm as the league prepares to play ball during a pandemic.
“There are going to be various rules in place,” BayStars closer Yasuaki Yamasaki told The Japan Times. “I think this season is going to be different than any up to now. Health comes first, but us doing everything we can to give our best effort in this situation can send positive vibes to all the fans.”
The most noticeable change at the outset will be the empty stands, with games taking place behind closed doors until at least July. Meaning NPB will be without the unique atmosphere fans create by singing, cheering and playing instruments.
Some clubs have responded to this with calls for fans to send in photos, videos and audio recordings to be used in ballparks during games.
Another major change is to the season itself. Teams are scheduled to play 120 games, instead of the usual 143, with no All-Star Series or interleague play. Contests will end after 10 innings instead of the usual 12.
The schedule was also revised to limit travel, with CL clubs remaining grouped in regions as they play and PL teams playing six game series until at least August. Two teams won’t do much moving at all early on, as the CL’s Tokyo Yakult Swallows and PL’s Seibu Lions open with 15 home games in a quirk of the revised slate.
“There are some difficulties in playing six-game series and I think these games will be hard,” Lions manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji told reporters on June 1 per FullCount.com. “However, we have to do it. We’re going to try to win one game at a time.”
The postseason will also be altered. The CL is eliminating the Climax Series while the Pa. League will stage a modified final stage in which the top two teams compete in a four-game series (the first-place team has a one-win advantage) to decide the Japan Series representative.
On Wednesday, NPB released a 50-page guideline chronicling the various measures being put in place.
There will be less travel but more players, with top-team rosters increasing from 29 to 31, with 26 allowed on the bench. Teams will also be able to carry five foreign players, up from four, on the top team.
Players, staff and coaches will be given PCR tests once a month and, according to the guidelines, a positive would result in an isolation period of 10 days from the onset of symptoms and 72 hours from the time symptoms dissipate. In the case of an asymptomatic positive, that person may be isolated for up to 10 days depending on the instructions of medical officials.
“The situation is highly unpredictable and the second and third waves (of COVID-19) are expected in the future,” NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito said in a statement on June 8. “We’ll be able to perform PCR tests on all the players, something that seemed difficult initially. We want to continue to prepare to hold games safely.”
The guidelines encourage players and coaches to sleep in single-occupancy hotel rooms on the road and avoid buffet-style meals, suggesting room service as an alternative. There will also be temperature checks before heading to the ballpark.
Some players have already had to adjust to a new reality around their teammates.
“At the field, not so much, but all the foreigners, we haven’t been able to get our families together and go out and eat and we haven’t been able to hang out as much as we probably usually would,” Seibu Lions pitcher Zach Neal told The Japan Times.
During games, players will be asked to refrain from handshakes and high fives without gloves — hence the air high fives and elbow bumps in practice games — and spitting. Additionally, managers and team staffers will wear masks.
A regular season that will start three months late will finish Nov. 6 in the PL and Nov. 7 in the CL. The Japan Series is scheduled to begin Nov. 21.
“I think one thing that this season is going to have an impact on, that maybe some people don’t think about, is how deep it’s going into the year,” Neal said. “Then a quick turnaround next year, with probably some sort of similar schedule to the Olympic schedule we had this year. I’ve never played in November.
“That’s just a whole other conversation for a different time. It’s a unique season, but I’m excited to get it going.”